Week 7 – Panopticon Systems and Surveillance

In class we touched on the idea of surveillance and the all-seeing eye from the panoptical perspective.The panopticon works like this: An institution, presumably a prison, is overseen by a single watchman, by situating him in a centered vantage point in which he can potentially see every single other individual (or inmate) in the institution. Because the individuals within the institution are unaware of whether or not they are being watched, they are forced to act orderly. This could easily be extended to the public sphere. We talked about the implementation of this in a city atmosphere in which a one-way window could convey the possibility of police monitoring. In theory, it would likely deter thievery and crime in general.

Blueprint for the institution. Circular shape allows for a center which could potentially see every point.
Blueprint for the institution. Circular shape allows for a center which could potentially see every point.

I thought that this was a brilliant idea. Not only is it incredibly efficient, but it also cleverly takes into account the psychological state of individuals within a system. It works similarly to induction puzzles, which often involve considering the mental states of subjects within a scenario (as well as some math). You must often keep track of the assumptions that each subject can make in a given situation and use them to come up with a conclusion.

However, it crossed my mind that the concept of the Panopticon is heavily dependent on the idea that humanity is pessimistic. You can easily argue against the viability of a large-scale panoptic model. An inmate within a panopticon prison may simply assume that he isn’t being watched because statistically, he probably isn’t. The panoptical model assumes that people only consider the worst case scenario and doesn’t consider that an optimistic individual would consider their chances and assume that they aren’t under surveillance at all times.

Artist rendering of a panopticon prison from within a cell.
Artist rendering of a panopticon prison from within a cell.

The text considers the dangers of the increasing ubiquity of GPS technology in the sense that it has implications on the topics of “privacy, solitude, surveillance” (Wilson 291). Steven Wilson’s “The Telepresent” is a project in which individuals pass a present amongst each other. The object records data in the form of GPS coordinates and photographic images and makes them readily available on the web. Therefore, as it moves from individual to individual, it continually collects and communicates information to the internet while maintaining its disguise as a mere gift box. I think that this project really raises questions about the Internet of Things and the ethics of surveillance. In the future, many objects may not appear to be computers, yet unknowingly will be taking information from their surroundings. As computers become more prevalent and less visible, we have to consider how this will affect privacy and what laws (if any) would be capable of deterring the use of these technologies maliciously. While Wilson’s project is for an artistic purpose, it does foreshadow what could be extremely common in a future where all objects are connected to some kind of network.

I think these issues will become clear in the future as soon as paranoia is visibly getting ridiculous. Very self-conscious individuals will feel forced to inspect suspect objects, and people will act different depending on whether or not they are within a public space. Like the idea behind the panopticon, people will likely assume that they are being watched, and possibility of being watched will dictate behavior in a manner that will make people behave as if they are always being watched. Should we be concerned about a declining privacy levels in the future?

-Paul Llanura


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